Southern France.

Jean Jacques, Elsie, and Christoph

After the weather in Palermo, Lindsay and I were both really excited to be seeing and staying with a family once again. So after flying to Marseilles and taking a bus to Monasque, we were so thrilled to get out and see Jean Jacques waiting for us.

Jean Jacques (JJ) is my very, very dear friend Nicola’s father, and Elsie (who we would see in half an hour later) is his mother. I had the brief pleasure of meeting them in San Francisco last year when they came to visit Nicola, but it was only that once. They are, in short, incredibly enjoyable people to be around and Lindsay and I both agreed that not for a second did we feel uncomfortable, awkward, or anything but filled with warmth, and thrilled and lucky to be getting to know them better.

JJ drove us to their ts, we LOVE. Cities are great, but these days the small towns/villages/countryside are really really exciting for us. JJ and Elsie’s house is in a town of approx. 100-200 people. Or maybe fewer (Lindsay and I have to fact check this) That is not very many people, regardless.

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Their house, which is some 20-30km outside of Monasque. Monasque is a fairly small city/town to begin with, so 20-30km outside of it is basically a tiny village. Which, if you’ve read any of our other blog posts, we LOVE. Cities are great, but these days the small towns/villages/countryside are really really exciting for us. JJ and Elsie’s house is in a town of approx 264 people.

A small problem: I somehow managed to get my backpack strap stuck in the latch of JJ’s car. So we ended up getting a saw and cutting the strap because we weren’t able to open the door. Elsie was later able to open the door, through some sort of magic I guess.

Their house, as you can hopefully see from the photos, is beautiful. Many windows, all of them show hills and mountains and rolling countryside. The house itself is something that my own family would love I think, similar styles. Lots of interesting things to look at, plants, art, etc. Friendly cats.

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An amazing “barbecue” which was noteworthy because one night when we cooked pork chops on the “barbecue” I was imagining something like a charcoal grill, or perhaps a gas grill, something more like we’d have in the states. When JJ went out to start the BBQ though, he did it by piling up a bunch of kindling and wood and starting a small fire in a brick box of sorts built into the side of their house. In other words, it was a real-ass barbecue – and it was awesome!

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Another awesome thing about their house: apparently this area is one of the clearest skies in Europe. The night we arrived the sky wasa 100% clear and we saw more stars then we had in a long long time. It was beautiful.

As soon as we arrived in the house on the first night, we had dinner. Not just dinner, a feast! Wine, Pastis (Lindsay’s new favorite drink, apparently!)

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bread, a very wonderful and welcome fresh salad, and a few different dishes. One of them included porchini mushrooms that the family had picked and dried last season. A potato/spinach/cheese dish that was awesome.

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And then cupcakes. The cupcakes (which Elsie was concerned weren’t very good!) were spectacular, in particular the chocolate cupcakes which were my personal favorite. And bread. Basically, a really nice, full, beautiful home-cooked meal that would be on par with a Christmas dinner IMO. We also Skyped Nicola, which I’m sad/ashamed to say was the first time I’ve really chatted with Nicola on the phone/video since we’ve left! But it was a just a really nice, beautiful, warm family-type atmosphere to come into, especially after our somewhat cold/rainy past few days in Palermo!

We slept in Nicola’s room (thanks Nicola!), which was very nice.

The next morning we woke up and had coffee and the first of three wonderful breakfasts. Coffee, tea, orange juice, homemade madelines (Lindsay’s favorite), even homemade yogurt that was truly wonderful (thanks in part to a kit that Nicola purchased for Elsie apparently!).

After breakfast we went on a wonderful car ride to a few of the towns in the area. We went this a really awesome market in a very small little town called Fac… and bought what I’d consider to be an AMAZING cheese. I sadly don’t know the name, but it’s a goat cheese that is sort of like a brie that hasn’t fully matured/aged (the inside is sort of like a normal/dry goat cheese, and the outside is sort of like a bri). Bonus, it was 5 euros for 5 of these small round cheeses (perhaps 3-4 inches in diameter). We also bought a roasted chicken, fresh greens for a salad, endives for a salad, and a few other things.

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We also went to this truly magical little sausage shop that Nicola apparently loves. We bought some wine, and a few different of these little sausages. The sausages are cut up into little pieces and eaten as a snack of sorts, with wine or beer or whatever. They were covered in this weird, mold-like fuzz (something we would have never tried otherwise, if we were to be honest), which honestly looked pretty gross, but they turned out to be amazing. As I’m typing this, Lindsay has found something similar at a grocery store and is eating it as we speak!

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After the market we went back to the house and had a wonderful lunch outside in the backyard of the house under a sun umbrella, soaking up the sun and enjoying each other’s company. It was honestly perfect.

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After lunch we went for another drive, visited another village and to check out the bus schedule for our eventual departure back to Marseilles. This was incredibly helpful because we were very much outside of the easy-to-access bus stations/train stations.

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We went to a square and had a trappist (Leffe?) beer and enjoyed the sun and talked. It was a perfect end to the day.

Eventually we went back home and had another spectacular dinner, this time with lamb, and leftovers…and more cupcakes. Though, I have to say, my favorite thing of the meal (and every meal after!) was the amazing goat cheese.

The next day we woke up and had another amazing breakfast, then we (well, Elsie mainly!) made a picnic for the day. We had a chance to see the amazing mineral collection (JJ and Elsie collect and sell minerals), and we did a load of laundry. We hung the laundry out to dry which was quite nice as it’s sort of like something in a movie, the laundry drying in the beautiful spring air on top of a rolling country hillside in France.

We then made our way up a mountain to a really amazing monastery in the woods. Pictures don’t really do it justice, but it was beautiful. We sadly weren’t able to go into the church/monastery because it was closed for some reason, but we enjoyed a picnic next to it regardless. There are some really old, old and beautiful oak trees that added a lot to the whole experience. Also, a few friendly-ish dogs.

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That night we had dinner and Nicola’s brother Christoph came over. We were so happy to be able to meet him as I’ve heard so much about him for years, talking with Nicola and hearing stories about his life. Christoph was a really nice and super cool guy, and it honestly meant a lot to both of us that he made the trip over so he could meet us. It was another wonderful family dinner.

We went to bed somewhat early that night as we had to wake up around 5:15 in the morning the next day. JJ and Elsie had to drive to Paris for a mineral show so we had to leave early. It was sad to say goodbye to JJ and Elsie, but we had a really amazing time. We feel quite lucky and thankful to the family for hosting us, feeding us!!!, and being so warm with us.

Also, a small but significant (for me) note: when we left India, we had a rough plan in our heads and we knew that SOMETIME we would eventually head to Munich to visit Babsi/Peter and the kids, and to France to visit Nicola’s parents. From that point, we wanted to find something to bring to each family. As luck would have it, we perhaps somewhat stupidly found two beautiful bottles of Sake at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. While not LARGE bottles of Sake, they also weren’t tiny, and they were of course filled with liquid. But, we felt that they were special. Anyway, the point is, I’ve been carrying this sake for going on 5 months. The first we left in Munich, but the second we left in France. It was somewhat symbolic of our trip for me. It’s really starting to come to an end. Also, I’m happy to be free of the weight and I’m happy both bottles made it to their “home” without breaking!

Cledia in Marseille

We took the bus from Forcalquier to Marseilles, which was around 2 or 3 hours. We arrived at the Marseilles train station, which it turns out was quite wonderful. We ended up heading in and sitting at a McDonalds for an hour to get wifi and figure out our plan for the day. This was quite pleasant actually as the train station was beautiful and we were quite happy to sit down and watch people for a while.

We didn’t meet up with Cledia, Nicola’s siter, until later in the day around 5pm, so we had a number of hours to explore Marseilles. We have always heard a bunch of negative things about Marseilles (most of them along the lines of “you’ll probably get stabbed in Marseilles”), but let me tell you that Marseilles is an AMAZING city! We didn’t have nearly enough time to really explore, but what we did see was just awesome.

First we went to a small camera shop that had a super nice guy who worked there, to buy some batteries for my film camera (note to Canon Rebel XS film camera owners: if you get an error because it’s likely the battery). Then we walked to Fort St. Jean, before stopping in an amazing old church that was stationed at the water’s edge.

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Along the way, which was a beautiful walk by the way, we noticed a bunch of yellow trucks/trailers that looked from afar to be part of a circus or something. We investigated and turned out to be correct. Being in a somewhat adventurous mood, I suggested we walk into the trailers to see if perhaps we could find ourselves in some sort of interesting circus related situation, perhaps eating lunch with clowns or something. We didn’t end up finding anything super interesting, but we did find a somewhat depressing (though I actually thought it wasn’t SO bad, despite the obvious non-natural concrete setting) “zoo” that we were able to experience for a euro (cheap!). This was one of those sort of amazing situations you find yourself in when backpacking. “Here we are, in the South of France, with our backpacks on, just visiting the circus zoo and watching some elephants eat oranges from like 5 feet away!”
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I was somewhat surprised to find the elephants in an enclosure that I could have literally walked through. I’m guessing the elephants are either well trained or have been trained with some sort of electric fence that they assume is always present, because really the only thing keeping these giant animals from walking into downtown Marseilles was a small rope rapped around a few pools, and a easily movable portable fence.

We eventually found Fort St. Jean which was pretty cool, especially for the cost of “free.” There were no English descriptions, but from what I can tell it’s an old fort that was used by, well, people that use forts, like the army. Lindsay took a nap while I went in, then we traded places and I read while she explored (we weren’t allowed to bring our packs in with us). The fort is now part historical building, part garden, part art exhibit.

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I enjoyed the view of Marseilles from on top of some of the fort’s towers. I’m not sure if we have digital photos of this view, but I took a few photos with my film camera I’ll be quite excited to see (someday!).

Also, while I don’t think it’s the same place, the view from the fort reminded me a lot of another one of the old film scans that I had on Flickr.

We went to a metro station to meet Cledia. We arrived a bit early so ended up hanging out and people watching, which was quite fun actually. There are many different type of ticket/metro setups but Marseilles was the type where you swipe an “IC” card (something like RFID?) on a reader and a gate opens up to let you through, then closes. I’d say about 1 out of 10 people didn’t actually pay to go through, they just snuck through behind a person who had swiped their cards. This seemed 100% normal and accepted, and was an enjoyable thing to watch.

When we met Cledia, it was like we had completely some sort of mission – meeting all of Nicola’s family. Cledia, like the rest of the family, is an amazingly wonderful person, and a stupendous host. She let us stay at her apartment which was super big (Lindsay and I would likely literally kill to have such a huge apartment!) and was overall, just very interesting. Her bed was lofted (and super comfortable), and she had a balcony that looked out over the street.

Seriously, the whole family were such wonderful hosts. Cledia had gotten us things for breakfast (orange juice, Madelines, this amazing muesli yogurt, coffee, etc) and once again generally made us feel like family. This is of course all despite the fact that we’d never met her before, and for her we were simply some friends of her brothers. Again, we felt very lucky and incredibly thankful.

Once we got settled, we went out for a Thai dinner at one of Cledia’s favorite restaurants. This was like a dream for us as we’ve both been craving Asian food for such a long time. Lindsay had Thai basil pork, and I had the somewhat un-adventurous pad thai. We even had mango and sticky rice for dinner. The food was wonderful, and it was wonderful to get a chance to get to know Cledia.

We were pretty tired and went to bed relatively soon after dinner (it was already getting semi-late).

In the morning we had breakfast (thanks again Cledia!) and then took our packs and headed out for a tour around the old City. Cledia was a great tour guide. I really really love getting the chance to ask a “local” things random things like “how do people deal with parking like this?” or “what types of people at at that cafe/bar over there?”

We went on a great walk around a bunch of really interesting areas of the city, in particular “old Marseilles” and our view that Marseilles is awesome was further cemented.

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Clelia even bought us small gifts to “remember her by” – as if we’d forget!
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Unfortunately we had a train to catch at 2pm, so we didn’t have as much time with Cledia as we’d have liked. We walked to the train station, where Cledia gave us a bag that she had packed for us of an amazing lunch. I know I keep saying things like “it was amazing” or “so nice”, but it really is true, and once again I was blown away by the awesomeness/kindness. She had made us a really amazing, fresh “energy” salad (that we ended up eating for lunch AND dinner that day!) with lentils, avocado, some sort of fancy raisin, whole hazelnuts, curry, and I’m not sure what else. And here is the absolute best part: knowing that I loved Kinder eggs (we talked about how I’d been devastated by a bunny Kinder chocolate that didn’t have a surprise!) she bought us a three-pack of Kinder eggs! I was/am so incredibly pumped.

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We sat down for a yogurt/pop/carrot juice at the station and talked for a bit more, and eventually said goodbye and jumped on the train taking us to Carcassonne.

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To Nicola, Jean-Jaque, Elsie, and Cledia, thank you – you have a wonderful family!

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